The End of Apartheid - South Africa in the 1990s

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  • 0:04 South Africa
  • 1:30 Apartheid
  • 2:47 South African Resistance
  • 4:43 International Response
  • 5:58 The End of Apartheid
  • 7:30 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

In 1948, South Africa began a system of legal segregation known as apartheid. It took 50 years of protests within South Africa and international pressure to bring the racism to an end.

South Africa

In the mid-17th century, around the same time when European empires were colonizing North America, the Dutch East India Company settled the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of southern Africa. Originally a supply post for ships heading across the Indian Ocean, it soon became a thriving Dutch colony. Then in the late 18th century, shortly after a revolution ended British control in the American colonies, Britain won control of the South African colonies from the Dutch. For most of the next 200 years, many residents of English heritage were at odds with those South Africans of Dutch ancestry, known as Afrikaners. At the turn of the 20th century, Britain fought off a rebellion by Dutch descendants in the outlying areas, and reaffirmed their supremacy throughout the region.

Britain unified all of the colonies in South Africa and granted them limited independence in 1910. Both white tribes gained political rights but non-whites were excluded; racial segregation was part of the culture, and blacks were restricted from most land ownership and certain skilled occupations. Then, following WWII, Afrikaners regained control of the government. They implemented a system of rigid segregation called apartheid.


Under apartheid, all South Africans were classified by race, including white, Indian, colored (or mixed race), and black. Furthermore, all citizens were forcibly relocated to a designated homeland. Although about 4 out of 5 South Africans were black, they received only 15% of the land. Most of the natural resources, productive farmland and developed cities were designated as white territory. Non-whites who worked in white territory required a pass to enter; the few who were granted permission to live in the cities were relegated to slums, called townships. Most contact between racial groups was banned.

In the mid-1950s when apartheid was being codified in South Africa, a Civil Rights movement was brewing in the United States. Now despite this seeming interest in racial equality, the U.S. was far more concerned about containing the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain. As long as South Africa remained an anti-communist ally in the Cold War, the U.S. refrained from protesting apartheid. What's more, many of the individuals associated with the anti-apartheid movement were communists.

South African Resistance

Of course, black South Africans had been consistently fighting discrimination and white minority rule, but in 1948, apartheid made their protests illegal. Still, several groups emerged in the 1950s dedicated to ending apartheid. The African National Congress, led by Nelson Mandela, arranged various acts of civil disobedience, boycotts and other forms of protest. The Pan Africanist Congress, which had split off from that group, organized an act of passive resistance in 1960. Hundreds of blacks arrived at the police station in Sharpeville (a black township) without their passes, fully expecting to be arrested. But the police opened fire on the crowd, killing 67 people and injuring 180 more.

The Sharpeville massacre galvanized the anti-apartheid movement, and convinced some groups to shift their methods from Gandhi's non-violence to more aggressive guerrilla tactics. Within a year, both the ANC and the PAC were outlawed, and most of their leaders were imprisoned or exiled. Nelson Mandela was convicted of sabotage, and sentenced to life in prison.

From this void came Desmond Tutu, the first black leader of the Anglican Church in South Africa. As he rose through the ranks of religious politics, he continually advocated for an end to apartheid. 'The black cause of liberation will triumph...,' Tutu said in 1981. 'God is on our side because he is always on the side of the oppressed. The only questions are how and when freedom will come. We want it now and we want it to come reasonably peacefully. Whites have to decide whether they want it to happen by negotiation or through violence and bloodshed.'

International Response to South Africa and Apartheid

Throughout the early years of the ban, many protestors fled to neighboring countries to avoid arrest. These refugees' presence and their continued fight against apartheid brought attention to the problem in nearby African nations. The 1960 Sharpeville massacre raised international awareness, as did South Africa's occupation of neighboring Namibia.

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